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Policy Debate: Should marijuana be decriminalized?

Issues and Background

The vehemence of marijuana's opponents and the harsh punishments routinely administered to marijuana offenders cannot be explained by a simple concern for public health. Paraplegics, cancer patients, epileptics, people with AIDS, and people suffering from multiple sclerosis have in recent years been imprisoned for using marijuana as medicine. The attack on marijuana, since its origins early in this century, has in reality been a cultural war -- a moral crusade in defense of traditional American values. The laws used to fight marijuana are now causing far more harm to those values than the drug itself. In order to eliminate marijuana use, state and federal legislators have sanctioned an enormous increase in prosecutorial power, the emergence of a class of professional informers, and the widespread confiscation of private property by the government without trial -- legal weapons reminiscent of those used in the former Soviet-bloc nations. The long prison sentences given to growers and dealers have pushed marijuana prices skyward, creating a domestic industry whose annual revenues now rival those of cotton, soybeans, or corn.
~Eric Schlosser, "More Reefer Madness," The Atlantic Monthly, April 1997
Smoked marijuana damages the brain, heart, lungs, and immune system. It impairs learning and interferes with memory, perception, and judgment. Smoked marijuana contains cancer-causing compounds and has been implicated in a high percentage of automobile crashes and workplace accidents. Marijuana-related visits to hospital emergency rooms have tripled since 1990. Marijuana is also associated with gateway behavior leading to more extensive drug use. This phenomenon poses serious concerns given the significant increase in marijuana use by teenagers.
~ Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2000

Marijuana is a product derived from the cannabis sativa plant. This plant, also known as "hemp," was a major agricultural product in the United States from the colonial period until the early part of the 20th century. Hemp was used to produce rope, cloth, lacquer, and bird seed. There is evidence suggesting that hemp was grown on the plantations of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

The use of cannabis sativa as a recreational drug (and the use of the term "marijuana" -- also commonly spelled as "marihuana") appears to have begun in the U.S. during the 1920s and 1930s. The consumption of marijuana during this period was initially associated with Mexican immigrants in the southwestern states and by black jazz musicians in the northeastern states. During the 1920s and 1930s, reports in tabloid newspapers suggested that the use of marijuana resulted in a proclivity for violent crime and/or insanity. These undocumented reports helped result in the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. This Act criminalized the possession of marijuana by imposing prohibitive taxes on marijuana consumption. (The nonmedicinal use of opium, morphine, and cocaine products had been prohibited by the Harrison Act of 1914.) The Boggs Act of 1951 and the Daniel Act of 1956 (and similar revisions in state laws) further raised the penalties associated with the possession or sale of illegal drugs. By 1969, the possession of drugs resulted in penalties that were higher than for virtually all other crimes in many states. (As noted by Charles Whitebread, in 1969, the possession of marijuana in Virginia resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, while first-degree murder resulted in a mandatory 15-year sentence and rape resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. The sale of marijuana in Virginia in 1969 resulted in a mandatory 40-year penalty.)

In 1969, the Dangerous Substances Act replaced earlier federal drug control laws and established penalties for the consumption of all drugs that were perceived as having little or no medical value and a high potential for misuse (except, of course for nicotine and alcohol). These penalties were lower than those under earlier legislation. In recent decades, a perception of increased drug use has resulted in a long-running "war on drugs." This war on drugs has resulted in very large expenditures in the criminal justice system

In recent years, several prominent economists, including Milton Friedman, have advocated the decriminalization of marijuana use. Those who advocate decriminalization argue that the legalization of marijuana would:

  • allow society to divert resources from the investigation, prosecution, and punishment, of drug offenders and use these resources in more productive ends
  • eliminate the overcrowding of the prison system,
  • reduce the profits received by organized crime from illegal drug sales
  • reduce drug-related crime,
  • allow research and development of medicinal uses of marijuana
  • result in a standardized product that is less likely to have undesirable side effects due to contaminants.

Advocates of the decriminalization of marijuana often make an analogy between the current situation and the experience of Prohibition. During Prohibition, society devoted a large amount of resources to prevent the illegal sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Organized crime profited from controlling the supply of alcohol during this period. Many people were injured during Prohibition from the consumption of improperly prepared alcoholic beverages sold by domestic manufacturers who were unwilling to place a brand name on their products. Thus, consumers of domestically produced alcoholic beverages were unable to rely on "brand-name identification" as a signal of product quality. While wealthy individuals were able to purchase imported beverages, low-income individuals often consumed the somewhat more diverse products produced in backyard stills and in old bathtubs.

When prohibition ended, society was able to regulate the sale of alcoholic beverages by applying taxes designed, in part, to correct for the negative externalities associated with alcohol consumption. DWI laws also reduce the externality problem associated with alcohol consumption. Brand-name identification substantially reduced the health hazards associated with alcohol consumption. Participants in organized crime had to find new sources of revenue. Those who advocate the decriminalization of marijuana argue that similar outcomes would result from the removal of criminal penalties associated with marijuana consumption. They also argue that the known health hazards associated with marijuana are substantially less than those associated with the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

Opponents to the legalization of marijuana argue that:

  • marijuana serves as a gateway drug -- users of marijuana are more likely to consume more dangerous drugs
  • there are known health hazards associated with marijuana consumption
  • the consumption of marijuana lowers worker productivity and may result in negative externalities when consumed before driving a car or when consumed by airline pilots, train engineers, nuclear power plant operators, and other workers.

Those who oppose the legalization of marijuana believe that the entire drug problem would become more severe if marijuana consumption is legalized. They believe that current attempts to restrict the supply of and demand for marijuana have resulted in a lower level of consumption than would otherwise have existed. Allowing the legal consumption of marijuana would, in this view, also result in an increase in the consumption of other drugs with more addictive potential. Opponents to decriminalization also note that the health risks associated with marijuana consumption are not fully understood.

One area of recent controversy involves the medicinal use of marijuana. There is some evidence that indicates that the active components of marijuana provide benefits to those who are suffering from glaucoma, cancer, some forms of chronic pain, and some AIDS-related illnesses. Current alternatives to the medicinal use of marijuana involve the use of narcotics that have a higher likelihood of addictive potential. The federal government has opposed the medicinal use of marijuana on several grounds:

  • the medicinal use of marijuana sends a signal that marijuana use is acceptable
  • the availability of medicinal marijuana would provide a new black-market source of the drug
  • the medicinal use of marijuana has not undergone the thorough testing that is required for the FDA approval process
  • it is argued that there are alternative treatments that have been more carefully studied.
Several states, however, are considering or have passed legislation that allows the medicinal use of marijuana. Canada has moved to the de facto decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of marijuana and is discussing legislation to formalize this decriminalization. The Bush administration has actively opposed such decriminalization efforts. This issue is likely to continue to be a source of continuing controversy for the next several years.


Primary Resources and Data
  • Office of National Drug Control Policy
    The Office of National Drug Control Policy provides information about U.S. federal drug control policy. Recently, this office has widened its drug control efforts to discourage the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes by teenagers (based on evidence that these serve as "gateway drugs" that increase the probability that teenagers will consume illegal drugs).

  • U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
    The Drug Enforcement Agency is charged with administering federal laws dealing with controlled substances. This site provides a history of the agency, a description of its mission, and online copies of press releases and congressional testimony.

  • The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, with an introduction by David Solomon
    The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively made the consumption of marijuana a federal crime. (Prior to the passage of this act, most states had passed laws that prohibiting marijuana consumption, but no federal prohibition existed.)

  • Controlled Substances Act
    The Controlled Substances Act is the current federal law involving controlled substances (including marijuana). The full text is available at this page provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

  • National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, "Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding"
    This March 1972 report was commissioned by President Richard Nixon to address the issue of public policy concerning marijuana use. This report suggested that marijuana use be discouraged, but recommended a reduction in the penalties for the possession and consumption of marijuana. It also encouraged the study of potential medical uses of marijuana.

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse
    The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides information on a wide variety of drugs that are frequently abused. This site contains online studies concerning the effects of commonly abused drugs.

  • Henrick Harwood, Douglas Fountain, and Gina Livermore, "The Economic Costs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in the United States, 1992"
    This online National Institute on Drug Abuse publication provides a detailed discussion of the economic costs associated with drug abuse in the U.S. It also contains a detailed examination of trends in drug usage.

  • National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
    This nonprofit organization has been lobbying for the legalization of marijuana since 1970. This web site contains information about the organization, news about the status of decriminalization in U.S. States, and information related to the medicinal use of marijuana.

  • The Lindesmith Center - Drug Policy Foundation, "Economics of the Drug War: A Bibliography"
    Mireille Jacobson, Leigh Hallingby, et. al., of the Lindesmith Center Library created this bibliography of articles and studies dealing with the economics of the drug war. Most of the studies are available only in print form, but a few are either available online or have online abstracts.


Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, "Still Crazy After All These Years: Marijuana Prohibition 1937-1997
    This site provides a history of the evolution of laws prohibiting marijuana consumption and makes a case for the decriminalization of marijuana. This article argues that the original prohibition of marijuana was based on misconceptions concerning the side-effects of consumption. The authors of this study also note that minorities are disproportionately charged with drug-related crime.

  • Charles Whitebread, "The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States"
    In this 1995 speech to the California Judges Association, Charles Whitebread examines the history of restrictions on illegal drugs in the United States. He observes that the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Harrison Act of 1914 effectively dealt with the widespread addiction problems associated with patent medications and the overuse of morphine-based painkillers. He suggests that the subsequent attempts to restrict the consumption of marijuana were based on faulty evidence and argues that marijuana should be decriminalized.

  • Richard J. Bonnie and Charles H. Whitebread, "The Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge: An Inquiry into the Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition"
    In this lengthy and detailed October 1970 Virginia Law Review article, Bonnie and Whitebread examine the legal history of marijuana prohibition in the United States. They provide a strong critique of the process by which federal prohibitions against marijuana consumption were created.

  • Paul Hager, "Marijuana Myths"
    Paul Hager, the chair of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union Drug Task Force, critiques several widely held beliefs about the health hazards associated with marijuana consumption. Among his arguments:
    • there is no evidence of brain damage associated with marijuana use
    • evidence in Holland and in U.S. states that have decriminalized marijuana suggests that the consumption of alcohol and other drugs have declined when marijuana use was decriminalized - suggesting that marijuana is not a "gateway drug"
    • the health risks of smoking marijuana appear to be no greater than the risks associated with cigarettes.

  • Eric Schlosser, "More Reefer Madness"
    In this April 1997 Atlantic Monthly article, Eric Schlosser argues for the decriminalization of marijuana. He suggests that current penalties are excessively high, often exceeding those for violent crime. Schlosser also notes that civil forfeiture laws allows the government to seize property from people who were not directly involved in any criminal activity. The burden of proof in such cases is placed on the person whose property is seized by the government.

  • Dale Gieringer, "Economics of Cannabis Legalization"
    Dale Gieringer argues for the legalization of marijuana in this 1994 article. He suggests that an intoxicating effect is available at a lower price from marijuana than from alcohol or other drugs. He advocates a tax of $.50 to $1.00 on the sale of each joint. Such a tax would raise between $2.2 and $6.4 billion in the U.S while saving society between $8 to $16 billion in criminal justice enforcement expenses. The tax could be adjusted to a level appropriate to any negative externalities associated with marijuana consumption.

  • Eric Blumenson and Eva Nelson, "The Drug War's Hidden Economic Agenda"
    In this March 9, 1998 article appearing in The Nation magazine, Blumenson and Nilsen critique the incentive effects facing law enforcement officials under the 1984 revision of the forfeiture laws. Under the revised forfeiture laws, law enforcement agencies are able to seize and take possession of assets that are used in drug-related activities. This provides local and federal law enforcement agencies with an incentive to enhance their budgets by seizing drug-related assets. Blumenson and Nilsen document cases in which property is taken from individuals who were not themselves engaged in illegal activities. A major problem with this incentive system is that law enforcement activities may be diverted towards the areas that provide the largest revenue for the law enforcement agency and away from the prevention of crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, and arson that provide no such financial remuneration. Blumenson and Nelson note that Donald Scott was killed in a raid designed to acquire his $5 million dollar ranch in Malibu. This raid resulted from an incorrect rumor that Scott had been growing marijuana on his property.

  • Bruce L. Benson and David W. Rasmussen, "Predatory Public Finance and the Origins of the War on Drugs, 1984-1989
    Bruce L. Benson and David W. Rasmussen examine the reasons for the increase in resources devoted to drug law enforcement in the mid- to late-1980s in this Fall 1996 Independent Review article. The effect of forfeiture laws is examined in this study. (To view this document, the Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.) 

  • Carolyn Gargaro, "Drugs"
    Carolyn Gargaro provides a conservative viewpoint on drug legalization. She argues that there are many cases in which the government has legitimate interest in regulating activities that are considered to be "victimless crimes." Gargaro believes that drug legalization would make drug abuse problems more severe.

  • Robert L. Maginnis, "Legalization of Drugs: The Myths and the Facts"
    In this online article, Robert L. Maginnis argues that the legalization of marijuana would result in substantial social costs since he believes that illegal drugs are more addictive than alcohol or tobacco. He also suggests that legalization would result in an increase in child abuse, child pornography, violent crime, and other illegal activities. Maginnis argues that the health costs of the medicinal use of marijuana outweighs the potential benefit.

  • National Review, "The War on Drugs is Lost"
    This February 12, 1996 National Review article provides a symposium for the viewpoints of prominent conservatives. They argue that the cost to society of the war on drugs exceeds the benefits. Buckley notes, for example, that the problem of drug use "consumes $75 billion a year of public money, exacts an estimated $70 billion a year from consumers, occupies an estimated 50 per cent of the trial time of our judiciary, and takes the time of 400,000 policeman...."

  • Steven Wisotsky, "A Society of Suspects: The War on Drugs and Civil Liberties"
    In this October 2, 1992 Cato Policy Analysis article, Steven Wisotsky provides a libertarian critique of the war on drugs. He provides numerous examples of police actions that he argues are in violation of the guarantees of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Wisotsky places particular attention on the abuses that result from the ability to seize property that was allegedly used in the commission of a drug-related crime.

  • James Ostrowski, "Thinking About Drug Legalization"
    In this May 25, 1989 Cato Policy Analysis article, James Ostrowski argues that the costs of the war on drugs outweigh the benefits. He argues that, as with prohibition, the overall crime rate has increased substantially as a result of this prohibition.

  • Office of National Drug Control Policy, "2006 National Drug Control Strategy"
    This document outlines the Bush Administration's programs designed to deter drug use. (To view this document, the Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar, "Marijuana as Medicine: A Plea for Reconsideration"
    In this June 21, 1995 Journal of the American Medical Association article, Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar note that marijuana had a very long history of medicinal use. They suggest that current federal restrictions make it impossible to engage in research on potential medicinal benefits from marijuana. Grinspoon and Bakalar note that marijuana appears to be remarkably safe compared to many drugs that are currently used for the treatment of pain. They note that there are no known cases of lethal overdoses with marijuana, while lethal overdoses are not uncommon with many drugs currently used as muscle relaxants, hypnotics, and analgesics.

  • Drug Enforcement Administration, "Response to JAMA Article Titled 'Marihuana as Medicine'"
    In this response to the article by Grinspoon and Bakalar, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) argues that marijuana is a dangerous drug that has a high potential for abuse. The DEA notes that the American Medical Association and several medical organizations have rejected the use of marijuana as a medicine. This press release also discusses the procedure for requesting approval for tests designed to examine potential medicinal uses of marijuana.

  • Marihuana: the Forbidden Medicine
    This site, provided by Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar, contains information and links that advocate medicinal uses of marijuana.

  • Robert Mathias, "Research Must Determine Medical Potential of Marijuana, NIH Expert Panel Concludes"
    In this National Institute of Drug Abuse Note, Robert Mathias summarizes the conclusions of an expert panel that investigated the issue of the medicinal use of marijuana. This panel concludes that more well designed research is needed to assess the effects of smoked marijuana. Most current research has involved the administration of oral doses of THC, an active component of marijuana. Mathias suggests that more research must be conducted on differences in the effectiveness of oral doses of THC and smoked marijuana.

  • The Drug Library, "Cannabis Research Library"
    The Cannabis Research Library webpage contains links to a collection of scientific studies on the health effects of marijuana.

  • SES Research, "Canada - Decriminalizing Marijuana"
    This website summarizes the results of a February 2003 SES Research poll of Canadian attitudes towards the decriminalization of marijuana. Approximately 69% of the public supported decriminalization. (To view this document, the Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • Canadian Medical Association Journal, "Marijuana: federal smoke clears, a little"
    The Canadian Medical Association Journal supported the decriminalization of marijuana in this May 15, 2001 editorial.

  • Gary S. Becker, "The Failure of the War on Drugs"
    Gary S. Becker argues, in this March 20, 2005 blog posting, that the war on drugs is doomed to failure. The basic problem is that attempts to enforce drug laws raises the price of drugs while quantity demanded falls by a lesser extent (since demand is relatively inelastic), resulting in additional profits to those who sell drugs without being caught. He notes that the war on drugs is costing the U.S. more than $100 billion per year. Becker argues that the legalization of drugs, combined with a high consumption tax would result in a greater reduction in drug use, with a much lower opportunity cost to society. In fact, this plan would provide more revenue to state and federal governments while reducing expenditures on the criminal justice system.

  • Richard Posner, "The War on Drugs"
    Richard Posner, in this March 20, 2005 response to Gary Becker's blog posting, supports Becker's basic argument, but disagrees that the war on drugs has been "lost." He observes that the war on drugs has reduced consumption and sales below the levels that would have been consumed in the absence of criminal enforcement activity. Posner notes that enforcement is particularly difficult when dealing with "victimless crimes" since detection and apprehension is more costly in such cases. He notes that violent crimes are often associated with drug sales today, but suggests that this would be less of a problem if drug use was legalized since gang violence, turf wars, and other issues related to illegal drug sales would disappear.

  • Karyn E. Model, "The Effect of Marijuana Decriminalization on Hospital Emergency Room Drug Episodes: 1975-1978"
    In this September 1993 article appearing in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, Karyn E. Model examines the effect of the decriminalization of marijuana possession in 12 states during the years from 1973 and 1978. She finds that decriminalization resulted in a reduction of emergency room visits caused by use of other illegal drugs while increasing the number of marijuana related emergency room visits. This provides evidence that drug use responds to changing relative costs. (To view this document, the Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • Jenny Williams, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Frank J. Chaloupka, and Henry Wechsler, "Alcohol and Marijuana Use Among College Students: Economic Complements or Substitutes"
    Jenny Williams, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Frank J. Chaloupka, and Henry Wechsler examine the cross-price elasticity of demand between alcohol and marijuana consumption. Their results indicate that alcohol marijuana use are complements. As a result, policies designed to reduce the consumption of alcohol are also expected to reduce marijuana consumption. Similarly, increases in the price of marijuana reduce both marijuana and alcohol use. They find that the demand for marijuana is relatively inelastic with a short-run (monthly) own-price elasticity of -0.27. (To view this document, the Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • Gary S. Becker, Kevin M. Murphy, and Michael Grossman, "The Economic Theory of Illegal Goods: The Case of Drugs"
    Gary S. Becker, Kevin M. Murphy, and Michael Grossman examine attempts to regulate the consumption of illegal goods in this December 2004 NBER working paper. (This paper is available at no charge only if your institution subscribes to the NBER working paper series.) They argue that it is not generally optimal to attempt to impose penalties on the consumption of a good that has an inelastic demand since attempts to restrict consumption raise the price and increases the return to the sellers. They show that a monetary tax on the commodity allows the same reduction in consumption to be achieved at a lower social cost. Thus, they advocate the legalization of illegal drugs, combined with taxes to reduce the consumption of these to a socially optimal level. (To view this document, the Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

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